“I live in a rough neighbourhood,” King Abdullah II casually remarks in this fascinating account of his first 10 years as ruler of Jordan, a small Arab nation that has always tried to punch above its weight.
As one turns the pages, the remark appears an understatement. Equally casually, he notes that “several Arab leaders tried to kill my father”, the late King Hussein, while Palestinian terrorists wanted to finish him off with acid and poison.
Abdullah himself has been the target of numerous plots hatched by Al Qaeda. On one occasion, Al Qaeda planned to blow up the king’s yacht in a suicide operation killing the whole royal family on vacation in Greek islands.
On occasions, this autobiography reads like a fast-paced thriller.
We see a young Abdullah alone in a fishing-boat off the Red Sea port of Eilat waiting for his father to return from a secret meeting with Israelis. The light of the cigarette of an Israeli sniper onshore, keeping his telescopic gun focused on Abdullah, punctuates the jet-black night.
At one point, Abdullah says, Jordan was host to a who-is-who of international terrorists including the Japanese Red Army, the German Baader-Meinhof, and the Venezuelan Carlos the Jackal, not to mention the Palestinian Yasser Arafat. More recently, it was the home of Abu-Musaab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
We learn of a plot by Iraqi “diplomats” sent by Saddam Hussein to Amman to poison the waters of Jordan, hoping to kill hundreds of thousands of the king’s subjects.
When the book shifts gear, we are taken into a world that recalls the Arabian Nights. We meet the late King Hussein’s brother plotting to win the crown while each of the king’s widows tries to promote her own son’s claim.
We see King Hussein, hat in hand, visiting a Palestinian family to ask for the hand of their beautiful daughter, the future Queen Rania, for Abdullah.
We see King Abdullah disguising himself as a dervish, just as Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid had done in medieval Baghdad, touring his capital at night to find out what was really happening. (The king could easily find out what is happening in his kingdom by lifting censorship and letting the media do their job.)
On a grimmer note, we learn that Saddam Hussein’s eldest son, Uday, had a habit of visiting girls’ high schools in Baghdad to abduct “the most beautiful” to re-damsel his cot.
We see General Zia ul-Haq, the future dictator of Pakistan, rebuilding Jordan’s “shattered army” after the kingdom’s defeat by Israel in 1967.
Abdullah’s account of his trip to North Korea, including a rare audience with The Great Leader Kim Il-Sung, provides comic relief.
What is remarkable is Abdullah’s access to the centres of power across the globe. He has worked with three US presidents and has had encounters with Iran’s “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi. More importantly, perhaps, Abdullah is the only Arab leader with good relations with all the leaders of the other 21 nations of the Arab League, making his close ties with Israel all the more remarkable.
Abdullah portrays President George W Bush as a man of few words and a lot of actions, not all of them praiseworthy. In contrast, President Barack Obama emerges as a man of many words, most of them moving, and little action.
A soldier by training, Abdullah never thought he would be king until the last days of his father. King Hussein decided to discard his brother Hassan, Crown Prince for decades, and anoint Abdullah as heir to the throne.
Abdullah’s military background is visible all along.
He does not blush to report that he sent a message to Paul Wolfowitz, a key architect of President Bush’s strategy, to “get stuffed”. He also reports Bush as saying, “You can piss on Chalabi”, referring to Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi businessmen whom Wolfowitz ostensibly wanted as Saddam Hussein’s successor.
Abdullah’s view of Saddam is ambiguous.
He skips over their meetings but notes some of the vicious aspects of the dictator’s regime.
At the same time, he portrays Saddam’s execution as a cause of anger among Arabs. If true, the claim might not be a compliment to Arabs.
Abdullah says he opposed the toppling of Saddam but now is concerned about a premature withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
Not missing an opportunity to remind us that one of his father’s cousins, Faisal, had once been King of Iraq, Abdullah barely conceals his dislike of new Iraq with Shi’ites in a dominant position.
He warns of the emergence of a “Shi’ite Crescent”, spanning from Iran to the Mediterranean, challenging Sunni Arab states and their Western allies.
To counter that threat, Abdullah formed an alliance with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Because the book was written before the fall of Mubarak and major changes in GCC’s strategy, it is not clear what has happened to the alliance.
The Jordanian sovereign praises the merits of secularism, including the kind supposedly practised by Saddam. He forgets that his family’s legitimacy is based on a religious claim, that of descent from Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). In fact, Abdullah’s country is called The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Abdullah forgets secularism when he claims that the Palestinian issue is “the number-one iconic Islamic cause” and concerns “all Muslims, from Indonesia to Morocco”.
When it comes to showing a path to peace, the king has little to offer beyond the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of Saudi Arabia, which, he insists, was initiated by his father. Launched six years ago, API has already run into numerous hurdles. The reason is that as long as neither Israel nor the Palestinians really want peace, no outsider could impose it on them.
King Abdullah dreams of a “Middle Eastern Benelux” grouping together Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and a Palestinian state.
“It would become an economic power-house,” he says as if licking his lips.
In line with popular misconceptions, the king exaggerates the importance of the Israel-Palestine conflict and calls it “the thread of all Middle Eastern conflicts” and a “global issue.” It is precisely by blowing the importance of this conflict out of all proportions that one might make it harder to find a solution.
The current uprisings in several Arab countries reveal a different picture. It seems that most Arabs, while certainly interested in the Palestine issue, have a whole host of other political, economic and cultural preoccupation more directly linked to their own life.
Over the past weeks, we have seen how President Bashar al-Assad’s desperate attempt at prolonging his reign of terror by harping on the Palestine issue has not silenced the popular revolt in Syria.
Despite his family’s close ties to Israel, the Jordanian king does not trust the Israelis.
He says that Israel’s claim of “being a tiny nation surrounded by hostile powers” is a myth that has “allowed the Israelis to portray their own calculated acts of aggression as self-defence and, in some cases, to persuade other nations to attack its enemies.”
From this book, King Abdullah emerges as a jovial companion with a sense of humour, perhaps picked up from his English mother or his British schoolmates at Sandshurst, and enough cynicism to survive in the Middle East.
The Western reader would find his concern with such fashionable themes as environmental protection, fair trade, and empowerment reassuring. Positioning himself mildly to the left, he brands people he does not like, including Bush, Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu, and, once again, Wolfowitz as “right wingers.”
No one knows how the current turmoil in the Arab world, which is also affecting Jordan, might play out. This book, however, portrays a young and energetic leader who might not always know what he should do but is determined to serve his people as best as he can.